1902 Encyclopedia > Cremation


CREMATION, or the burning of human corpses, may be said to have been the general practice of the ancient world, with the important exceptions of Egypt, where bodies were embalmed, Judaea, where they were buried in sepulchers, and China, where they were buried in the earth. In Grecce, for instance, so well ascertained was the law that only suicides, unteethed children, and persons struck by lighting where denied the right to be burned. At Rome, one of the XII. Tables said "Hominem mortuum in urbe ne sepelito, neve urito;" and in fact, from the close of the republic to the end of the 4th Christian century, burning on the pyre or rogus was the general rule.1 Whether, in any of these cases, cremation was adopted or rejected for sanitary or for superstitious reasons, it is difficult to say. Embalming would probably not succeed in climates less warm and dry than the Egyptian. The scarcity of fuel might also be a consideration. The Chinese are influenced by the doctrine of Feng-Shui, or incomprehensible wind water; they must have a properly placed grave in their own land, and with this view corpses are often sent home from California. Even the Jews used cremation in the vale of Tophet when a plague cane; and the modern Jews of Berlin and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews at Mile End Cemetery have been among the first to welcome the lately revived process. Probably also, some nations had religious objections to the pollution of the sacred principle of fire, and therefore practiced exposure, suspension, throwing into the sea, cave-burial, desiccation, or envelopment.1 Some at least of these methods must obviously have been suggested simply by the readiest means at hand. Cremation is still practiced over a great part of Asia and America, but not always in the same form. Thus, the ashes may be stored in urns, or buried in the earth, or thrown to the wind, or (as among the Digger Indians) smeared with gum on the heads of the mourners. In one case the three processes of embalming, burning, and burying are gone through; and in another, if a member of the tribe die at a great distance from home, some of his money and clothes are nevertheless burned with the body, so they are sometimes burned with the body, the whole ashes being collected.2 The Siamese have a singular institution, according to which, before burning, the embalmed body lies in a temple for a period determined by the rank of the dead man,—the king for six months, and so downwards. If the poor relatives cannot afford fuel and the other necessary preparations, they bury the body, but exhume it for burning when an opportunity occurs. There can be little doubt that the practice of cremation in modern Europe was at first stopped, and has since been prevented in great measure, by the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body; partly also by the notion that the Christian’s body was redeemed and purified.3 Science has shown that burning mere produces quickly what putrefaction takes a long time to accomplish; but the feeling of opposition still lingers among the clergy of more than one nation. Some clergymen, however, as Mr Haweis in his Ashes to Ashes, a Cremation Prelude, London, 1874, have been prominent in the reforming movement. The objection was disposed of by Lord Shaftesbury when he asked, "What would in such a case become of the blessed martyrs?" The very general practice of burying bodies in the precincts of a church in order that the dead might take benefit from the prayers of persons resorting to the church, and the religious ceremony which precedes both European burials and Asiatic cremations, have given the question a religious aspect. It is really a sanitary one. The disgusting results of pit-burial made cemeteries necessary. But cemeteries are equally liable to overcrowding, and are often nearer to inhabited housed than the old churchyards. There is indeed a disposition to build villas near ornamental cemeteries. It is possible to make a cemetery safe approximately by selecting a soil which is dry, close, and porous, by careful drainage, and by rigid inforcement of the rules prescribing a certain depth (8 to 10 feet), and a certain superficies (4 yards) for graves. But one has only to read such a work as Baker’s Laws Relating to Burial to see how many dangers burial legislation has to contend with. A certain amount of irrespirable gas will escape into the air, or into sewage drains, and thus reach houses, or will percolate so as to contaminate water which is afterwards used. The great Paris cemeteries inflict headache, diarrhoae, and ulcerated sore throat on their immediate neighbours; and a great mass of similar well-authenticated facts may be brought against even recent cemeteries in various countries. A dense clay, the best soil for preventing the levitation of gas, is the worst for the process of decomposition. The danger is strikingly illustrated in the careful planting of tress and shrubs to absorb the carbonic acid. Vault-burial in metallic coffins, even when sawdust charcoal is used, is still more dangerous than ordinary burial. It must also be remembered that the cemetery system can only be temporary. The soul is gradually filled with bones; houses crowd round; the law itself permits the re-opening of graves at the expiry of fourteen years. We shall not, indeed, as Browne says, "be knaved out of our graves to have our skulls made drinking bowls and our bones turned into pipes!" But on this ground of sentiment cremation would certainly prevent any interruption of that "sweet sleep and calm rest" which the old prayer that the earth might lie lightly has associated with the grave. And in the meantime we should escape the honor of putrefaction and of the "small cold worm that fretteth the enshrouded form."

For the last ten years many distinguished physicians and chemists in Italy have warmly advocated the general adoption of cremation, and in 1874, a congress called to consider the matter of Milan resolved to petition the Chamber of Deputies for a clause in the new sanitary code, permitting cremation under the supervision of the syndics of the commune. In Switzerland Dr Vegmann Ercolani is the champion of the cause (see his Cremation the most Rational Method of Disposing of the Dead, 4th ed., Zurich, 1874), and there are two association for its support. So long ago as 1797 cremation was seriously discussed by the French Assembly under the Directory, and the events of the Franco-Prussian war have again brought the subject under the notice of the medical press and the sanitary authorities. The matter was considered by the municipal council of Paris in connection with the new cemetery at Méry-sur-Oise; and the perfect of the Seine in 1874 sent a circular asking information to all the cremation societies in Europe. The municipality of Vienna has actually made cremation permissive. There is a propagandist society, called the "Urne," and the main difficulty for the poor seems to be the cost of conveying the bodies five miles. To overcome this a pneumatic tube has been proposed. Dresden, Leipsic, and Berlin are the centres of the German movement, and Professor Reclam’s De la Crémation des Cadavres seems to be the most important work. In Britain the subject has slumbered for two centuries, since in 1658 Sir Thomas Browne published his quaint Hydriotaphia, or Urnburial (see edition by St John, London, 1838), which was mainly founded on the De Funere Romanorum of the learned Kirchmannus. In 1817 Dr J. Jamieson gave a sketch of the "Origin of Cremation" (Proc. Royal Soc. Edin., 1817), and for many years prior to 1874 Dr Lord , medical officer of health for Hampstead, continued to urge the practical necessity for the introduction of the system. It was Sir Henry Thompson, however, who first brought the question prominently before the public, and started in 1874 the Cremation Society of London. Its object is to introduce through the agency of cemetery companies, and parochial and municipal authorities, and burial boards, some rapid process of disposing of the dead, "which cannot offend the living and shall render the remains absolutely innocuous." Thompson’s problem was—"Given a dead body, to resolve it into carbonic acid, water, and ammonia, rapidly safely, and not unpleasantly." Relying on the evidence which suggested recent burial legislation (see Report to the General Board of Health on a General Scheme for extramural Sepulture, Clowes and Son, 1859, signed by Lord Shaftesbury, Chadwick, and Southwood Smith; also Walker On Graveyards, Longmans, 1839), he pointed out that in the neighbourhood of cemeteries there is a constantly increasing risk of contaminated air and water. The problem he solved by the Siemens process of cremation, which, when generally employed, would effect a great saving in the cost of funerals, and would also leave a quantity of bone earth equal in value to the bones imported into this country chiefly for manure. The British authorities in India have already had much practical experience of cremation. Poor Hindus often din not supply wood and oil (ghee) enough for the total consumption of the body, and hence Sir Cecil Beadon at Calcutta, and the sanitary commissioner of Madras, both found it necessary in the public interest to erect cinerator on the burning ghat or ground (Latin, ustrina), which might be used on payment of a fee. So also at Poonah, Colonel Martin, struck with the high cost (above 12 rupees) of even a poor funeral, constructed in 1864 a pentagonal cinerator for the use of Brahmans and the other Hindu castes. The idea is spreading rapidly in New York.

Among the practical methods of cremation which have recently been attempted, we may mention, in the first place, the experiments of Dr Polli at the Milan gas works, which have been fully described in Dr Pietra Santa’s book, La cremation des morts en France et à l’étranger, and those of Professor Brunetti, who exhibited an apparatus at the Vienna exhibition of 1873m and who states his results in La Cremazione dei cadaveri, Padua, 1873. Polli obtained complete incineration or calcination of digs by the use of coal-gas mixed with atmosphere air, applied to a cylindrical retort of refracting clay, so as to consume the gaseous products of combustion. The process was co9mplete in two hours, and the ashes weighed about 5 p.c. of the weight before cremation. Brunetti used an oblong furnace of refracting brick with side-doors to regulate the draught, and above a cast-iron dome with movable shutters. The body was placed on a metallic plate suspended on iron wire. The gas generated escapes by the shutters, and in two hours carbonization is complete. The heat is then raised and concentrated, and at the end of four hours the operations is over; 180 lb. of wood costing 2s. 4d. sterling was burned. In the reverberating furnace used by Sir Henry Thompson a body, weighing 144 lb., was reduced in fifty minutes to about 4 lb of lime-dust. The noxious gases, which were undoubtedly produced during the first five minutes of combustion, passed through a flue into a second furnace and were entirely consumed. In the ordinary Siemens regenerative furnace (which has been adapted by Reclam in Germany for cremation, and also by Sir Henry Thompson) only the hot-blast is used, the body supplying hydrogen and carbon; or a stream of heated hydrocarbon mixed with heated air is sent from a gasometer supplied with coal, charcoal, peat, or wood,—the brick or iron-cased chamber being thus heated to a high degree before cremation begins. In one arrangement both gas and air are at a white heat before they meet and burst into flame in the furnace. The advantages of the Siemens furnace and gas producer (which would cost about £800 in construction) are that the heat of the expended fuel is nearly all retained by the regenerators, and that the gas retort admits of the production being stopped without much loss. Some difficulty has been felt about keeping the ashes free from foreign material. The Greeks used a shroud of asbestos, the Egyptians one of amianth. Mr Eassie suggests a zinc coffin,—that metal being volatile. It is also suggested that the ashes might be deposited in urns, and these placed in a columbarium which might be in the church or at home.

See Eassie, Cremation of the Dead, London, 1875,—a valuable book in which nearly every source of information on the subject is indicated. (W. C. S.)


FOOTNOTE (page 565)

1 Macrobius says it was disused in the reign of the younger Theodosius (Gibbon, v. 411.)

FOOTNOTES (page 566)

(1) The Colchians, says Sir Thos, Browne, made their graves in the air, i.e., on trees.

(2) In the case of a great man there was often a burnt offering of animals and even of slaves (See Caesar, De Bell. Gall. Iv.)

(3) A temple of the Holy Ghost (see Tertullian, De Amma, c. 51, cited in Müller, Lex. Des Kirchenrechts, s.v. "Begräbniss").

The above article was written by William Charles Smith, K.C., M.A., LL.D.; Advocate; Sheriff of Ross, Cromarty, and Sutherland, to 1900; author of Local Government in Scotland and The Secretary for Scotland, edited the Juridical Review, 1889-1900.

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